Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Real Wasabi and Fresh Fish from Kazu

Beautiful Raw Fish,
Severed with Real Pale Wasabi.
Kazu is a gem.

I don’t think much about the ethnicity of the chef when I dine out. Trust me, my dad’s cooking is a testament that just because you’re Chinese doesn’t mean you get phenomenal Chinese food.   

I think things like natural talent, passion for food, dedication to the craft, and attention to detail are much more important when it comes to getting a great meal from a chef.

Kazu is a Japanese restaurant that opened its doors during the summer in North Burnaby.  The place has been getting the love from local bloggers and Vancouver Sun critic Mia Stainsby, all making note of the Japanese ownership and staff.  Is this the second coming of Kimura; a downtown quality and innovative sushi joint with suburban pricing?  I had to check it out.

Speedy and I always seem to alarm the wait staff at Japanese eateries with the volume of food we order; something about us being tiny Asian girls.

Our dinner at Kazu was no different.  The first to arrive was the assorted sashimi featuring real wasabi, albacore tuna, tako, wild sockeye salmon, surf clam, hamachi and ambei.  A few moments later the deep fried head of the sweet shrimp was brought out. 

Nicely presented and cut, the sashimi was fresh and tasty.  The true wasabi and crispy yet creamy shrimp head was a thoughtful touch. 

The veggie tempura (pumpkin, yam, carrot & bell pepper) arrived to our table next.  Much like the shrimp head, the tempura was well prepared; crunchy without excess grease on the outside and the veggies exhibiting the right texture on the inside.

Our fairly traditional rolls (ume shiso, negihama & crunch) and uni nigiri appeared shortly.  The uni nigiri was fresh, creamy, briny and just fantastic.  All the rolls featured very fresh ingredients but the ume shiso was the most unique.  Ume is pickled plum that’s more salty than sour and when shiso’s unique herbal profile is added, it makes for a very refreshing maki roll.

The enjoyable crunch roll consisting of tuna, masago, tobiko, cucumber and tempura bits is the extent of the fusion rolls served at Kazu.

Next to arrive was the assorted sushi combo which features the chef’s selection of nigiri along with a tuna maki and a cup of miso soup (not pictured).  Tonight for the nigiri we got squid, surf clam, tako, salmon, tuna, tamago and saba.  Similar to the sashimi, the fish was nicely prepped.  I was impressed with the proper scoring on the crunchy squid.  The mackerel was impressive as it was pickled but still firm, in one piece and not discoloured from over pickling.  

The chef follows traditions with the nigiri and each piece had a smear of wasabi underneath the fish.  In most of the  pieces the wasabi was a nice compliment.  Unfortunately, in one piece there was little too much.  I definitely was overloaded on the spiciness.  However with the real deal Japanese horseradish, I didn’t get the open up your nasal passage sensation. 

Both Speedy and I enjoyed our meal.  We actually only had two nit-picky things regarding the rice.  We both thought the rice was a touch over in terms of firmness; a bit gummy.  I also thought the formation of the rice in the maki and nigiri could be cleaned up as there were loose grains jutting out, thus affecting the presentation of the food.  However both concerns can easily be remedy and won’t deter us from returning.

With its focus on more traditional and simple sushi, Kazu reminds me of Aki downtown.  If you want well prepared raw fish at an excellent price then Kazu is 100% the place you should be heading to.  Overall Kazu is an above average basic sushi joint.  

One might argue this place is great because it’s Japanese run but I think it’s awesome because the chef pays attention to the details, is dedicated and clearly cares about serving well prepared sushi and sashimi.

Kazu Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Homemade Vietnamese Ham Salad Rolls from Ha Long Bay

Solid east Van pho
Found in downtown Vancouver;
Defies rule of thumb.

One definition of crazy is repeating the same actions but expecting a different result.  I was definitely cuckoo when I went to the same Vietnamese food court stall expecting something decent and being disappointed on 4 separate occasions.  Partially my fault since I was too lazy to walk to Hai Phong near the Chinatown T&T.  However after 4 awful meals, I needed to remedy the situation ASAP and find something decent for lunch

So on a non rain day, I did a grid search around my office by foot looking for new close-by eateries (within a 5 minute walk).  I was very interested in finding anything Asian.  What did a come up with? A place that sells $5 chicken biryani, Cinara now offers lunch, there’s a new White Spot at Dunsmuir & Homer, and Ha Long Bay. 

I didn’t have high hopes for Ha Long Bay as in general decent Vietnamese usually can’t be found west of Main Street.  My expectations rose a bit when I saw the place was very busy for lunch.  The eatery’s menu was short, simple and pretty standard.  They did have some hand printed specials on the wall and I saw they were offering real crab spring roll for $5.50 per roll.  I see Mr. Red Cafe’s influence is starting spread.

Well I had to get that for comparison sake and added a small Special Pho, aka the Pho with all the toppings (raw beef, cooked flank, beef balls & tripe).  Everything about the pho I ordered was fresh, from the raw bean sprouts to the tender ruby red beef slices.   

The all important beef broth was solid and tasty.  It was subtle with a slightly sweet aftertaste and with a touch tanginess from the lime I squeezed in.  Enjoyable but not mind blowing.

The crab spring roll looked like a regular spring roll.  From what I could see and taste, the filling had carrots, cloud ear fungus, celery, and glass noodles.  There was also a mystery veggie ingredient in the filling that I’m going to tentatively ID as jicama but I’m not 100% sure.  

In comparison the regular Vietnamese spring roll, the filling was definitely softer, moister and sweeter.  However, I couldn’t really spot any crab meat.   I thought it was O.K. but I much prefer Mr. Red’s more bountiful and better crafted version.   

On another visit I spotted something that peaked my interested.  Salad rolls made with homemade Vietnamese ham.  Homemade? Yes please!

I was very impressed the portion and freshness of the salad roll.  No iceberg lettuce filler here.  In addition to the vibrant leafy green leaf lettuce, there were bean sprouts, carrots and cucumber to add extra crunch to the roll. 

As for the cha lua, I’m inclined to think that no deceptive advertising practices are being used.  The ham was roundish but not perfectly circular which for me points to it being made onsite rather than purchased at a wholesaler. 

In terms of flavour, it was more subtly sweet, peppery and porky; not the overwhelming MSG enhanced sweetness typifying commercially prepared products.  The homemade Vietnamese ham salad rolls are impressive and something to try. 

In addition to the salad roll, I ordered a raw beef plus meatball pho to round out the meal.  Once again all the ingredients were very fresh.  The pho had a solid soup based that either doesn’t use MSG or does so aptly. 

Ha Long Bay serves food more in line with Vietnamese restaurants found east of Main street.  It is definitely solid and much better than that food court stalls found in food courts scattered around the downtown core.  My sanity has been rescued.   

Ha Long Bay on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wow, You've got Something There! – Kaisen and Miso Ramen from Gyoza Bar + Ramen

The ramen is great;
Unique, complex & tasty.
So why all the hate?

“When new ramen is created in Japan, they’re like, “Oh that’s great – it’s a new style”.  But if it’s done outside of Japan - it’s not authentic, therefore it’s not ramen.”
Chef David Chang (Momofuku), The Mind of a Chef, Season 1 Episode 1 - Ramen

Chef David Chang may have been referring to his own work at Momofuku but he easily could be describing the ramen scene in Vancouver.   Almost every noteable ramen-ya that has opened in Vancouver has been hammered online by the first wave of diners.  Oddly the criticism is always the same:
  • “It’s too expensive, what a rip off”
  • “It’s not like my favourite so I hate this”
  • “This isn’t authentic like I had in Japan”
Sometimes it’s on point (I’m thinking Number 1 Noodle House) but other times it just doesn’t make sense.  Fortunately, the silent majority have rescued the worthy and I’m thankful.  I can’t imagine this city without Santouka’s toroniku ramen, the fabulous ramen egg from Marutama and Taishoken’s tsukemen; all places that have drawn the ire of the first in and angry out ramen ragers. 

In this sense, Gyoza Bar may simply be going thru a rite of passage that a lot of ramen shops have to in the city.  I was fortunately to attend the family and friends dinner before they opened for my freelance work for the Vancouver edition of (R.I.P.).  I chose not to write a review for my blog at that time because I knew there would be lots of changes and adjustments but I was impressed with the quality and innovation at that time.

Fast-forward 2 months and despite the low ratings, I was eager to head to Gyoza Bar with Speedy to do a proper review.  Since the place is called Gyoza Bar + Ramen, our meal consisted of ramen and gyoza mostly.

I was particular eager to try the Teppan Gyoza because there was a key issue during my first experience: the gyoza was clingier to the imono pan than a Kardashian to notoriety.  I was happy to see the kitchen had fixed the problem and each Teppan gyoza could be picked out of the spiral arrangement intact and unmarred. 

This variation of gyoza was served with two sauces:  spicy garlic soy (right) and the umami soy sauce (left).  Despite being spicy, I was preferred the garlic soy dipping sauce as it was more interesting.  Each dumpling was extremely juicy.  The filling had a smooth texture which I preferred since it’s what I grew up with.  The flavour was good and there was a golden brown crisp to the dumplings.  I think these pork gyoza are very good but not extraordinary.

Beautifully plated, the Chili Shrimp gyoza was the dumpling I preferred.  Much like the Teppan gyoza, the shrimp version was extreme juicy. When you combine all the components of the dish the bite is bursting with flavours: salty (ikura), sour (pickled diakon), sweet (shrimp filling) and spicy (wasabi chimichurri & filling).  Being a wonton connoisseur, I wish the shrimp in the gyoza had a stronger pop of sweet umami flavour as it seemed a bit dull but other than that I really enjoyed this dish.

I decided to get the small version of the Kaisen Tomato ramen as I had issues finishing the regular size in my previous visit. The bowls used by Gyoza Bar, which remind of me of Salish hats, are a little deceptive.  They are exceptionally deep which allows them to hold more food than one would think. 

I believe a small version is available for every ramen and is $3 less than the regular price.  I was curious to see what this difference was in terms of the volume of food.  From what I recalled, the small Kaisen ramen has one less piece of each type of seafood (scallop, prawn, in shell mussel and clams), sous-vide chicken cha siu and stalk of broccolini.  As for the noodles, it’s a long the lines of Santouka as I can easily finish their offering and had no issues this time around.

I loved this bouillabaisse inspire ramen before and nothing has changed my mind.  For me, the soup is the most critical element of a noodle soup and in the Kaisen ramen it is wonderful.  The garlicky tangy broth had a deep bold umami flavour.  You just want to keep on slurping the soup and the noodles.

In addition to perfectly cook seafood, my order came with two pieces of sous-vide white meat chicken cha sui.  Sous-vide is one of the few cooking methods I’m aware of that consistently produces extremely juicy, flavourful and tender white meat chicken.  The chicken cha sui was fantastic, exemplifying the amazing result the sous-vide technique can achieve.  Lastly, a small side bowl was brought to table for the shells of the seafood which wasn’t deployed on my first visit.

Speedy went with the regular sized Awase Triple Miso ramen.  I was able to sample a few spoonfuls of the miso infused chicken broth and I liked it.  It was aromatic, sweet and savoury.  One of the knocks I have against miso ramen is that the soup often just ends up being overwhelmingly salty.  The soup based used at Gyoza Bar is complex tasting.  This bowl of noodle also featured the same chicken cha sui as my ramen and Speedy really like it.    Speedy barely managed to finished her ample order and was impressed with it.

What’s a meal without dessert?  We shared the Yuzu Komichi, which looked like a deconstructed Japanese cheesecake to me.  It had a creamy yuzu infused filling, small little sweet biscuits and cactus pear shaved iced and a fruit sauce.  Like a lot of Asian desserts, the Yuzu Komichi was not overly sweet and relied on the fruit components as the main flavours of the dessert.  It was a nice refreshing way to end the meal.

I’m more impressed with ramen than the gyoza served at Gyoza Bar.  In fact I think the restaurant should think about switching around its name to Ramen Bar + Gyoza.

I really appreciate how the restaurant is pushing the boundaries of ramen and gyoza with different fillings and soup bases beyond the traditionally conceived idea of what those items are.

Without eateries trying innovative things, cuisines become stagnant and average.  Greek food in Vancouver would be a great example of a boring cuisine in the city.  Also, based on the first pre-open dinner to my recent visit, the restaurant should get kudos for making adjustments to improve their food and service.

The ramens at Gyoza Bar are fantastic and should be experienced.  I sincerely hope the silent majority will come throw this new ramen-ya a life preserver from the negative reviews. 

Gyoza Bar + Ramen on Urbanspoon

Bonus Content:  Below is the ramen episode of “The Mind of a Chef” where Chef David Chang explores ramen in Japan.  It features Tsukemen and a place serving ramen noodle shaped like lasagna noodles.  I can only imagine the epic rage that would happen if those lasagna sized noodles were served here in a Vancouver ramen-ya.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wow, You’ve got something there! – PureBread

Must change route to work.
Damn you delicious Purebread!
Flabby from pastry.

PureBread has a devoted following in Whistler and among farmer’s market attendees in the city.  Based on rave reviews, I was very eager to try the new location near Victory Square.  From the outside, it looks like your average non descript Gastown café.  However when you step in and walk up to the pastry counter, it’s simple mesmerizing.

A bounty of sweet and savoury pastries is displayed causing most customers I observed to get a deer in the headlights look.  I had to do two walkabouts before I felt confident to order.  I definitely had a case of F.O.M.O.

I originally intended to just grab one pastry but ended up with a box of six.  Let this be a lesson to aspiring marketers on how important a display can be in promoting your product and getting people to buy more.  

Suffice it to say I did try all six pastries with the help of my colleagues.  I was everybody’s favourite co-worker that day.  Also, not all the items have interior shots because it was devoured before a photo could be taken.  

I selected an assortment of both salty and sugary treats.  Here is what I got:

Upper Left – Brownie (I think it was the Original)
Bottom Left- Cranberry Cream Bar
Upper Center – Earl Grey Lavender Scone
Bottom Centre – Morning Glory
Upper Right – Bacon Chive Scone
Bottom Right – Cheddar Jalapeño Scone.

The brownie was had very thin crumbly top layer and then after that it was all fudge-y goodness.   This was a delicious treat that had some nice little touches that helped make the brownie so good.  There are small chunks of chocolate to up the chocolate quotient.  In the top layer, there was some salt to enhance the overall flavour.  This was a very decadent and enjoyable.

When I spotted the Cranberry Cream Bar, I immediately thought of Starbucks’ Cranberry Bliss Bar.  In fact so did my colleagues as we tasted it.  It’s similar, with Purebread adding more chunks of ginger into their version.  Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of ginger except for in Gingerbread so I did not like this bake good as much. 

The Earl Grey Lavender Scone had an aromatic sweetness to it.  The scone had a nice texture without being to dry.  With each bite, the lavender flavour was front and centre, with the Earl Grey taste profile emerging towards the end.  My favourite part was the sweet icing that had a slight citrus tang to help provide a nice contrast.

The Morning Glory is for the donut lover and is slightly reminiscent of those mini cake donuts from the P.N.E.  It’s a yeast donut dusted with a sugar cinnamon concoction.  The inside was soft with more hints of cinnamon and a faint orange after taste.  I thought it had a tad too much of the sugar cinnamon coating so it was too sweet for me.

The Bacon Chive Scone is a solid savoury breakfast item.  It had a similar texture to the Earl Grey Lavender Scone.  The chives made this scone very fragrant.  The bacon was salty and smoky.  I enjoyed this.

The Cheddar Jalapeño scone was actually spicy from both the Jalapeño peppers and chilli powder in the scone.  As a result I only had a few bites but I really liked this scone.  In addition there was another flavour that was present in the scone that made this item more complex.  I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what it was but it reminded of taco seasoning.  If I could eat spicy without consequences I would order this scone above all others.

I managed to make it a few days before stepping into Purebread again and stuck to my goal of just buying one item.  My office mates were very disappointed.

This time I just picked up a Mushroom Gruyere Tart and this was my favourite item thus far from Purebread.  The pastry was buttery and flaky.  The basil, Gruyere cheese and mushrooms was a nice combination.  The mushroom were especially flavourful providing the tart with an extra punch of umami.  This tart was amazing.

Due to personal preference, I didn’t like all the items I got at Purebread but I’ve understand why so many love this place.  This bakery puts little details like salt in the brownie and a citrus note in its icing, which elevates their goods from ordinary to fantastic.  Consider me a new fan.

Pure Bread on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wow, You’ve got something there! – Timbertrain

I love Timbertrain.
Cold Brew and subtle coffee
In a cozy space.

It’s been almost 2 years since my company moved from Yaletown to Gastown.  I have learned the following:
  • We cannot use the microwave and the kettle at the same time or we will short circuit ¼ of the electricity to our office and our neighbour’s too.  The joys of having an office in a building built in 1910.
  • Our building is probably haunted.  During a Saturday emergency office meeting, we heard children playing in the hallway but we were sure we were the only people in the building.  I can only imagine the stuff that may have happened in a building  that’s 100 + years old.
  • There is a creepy lady who dresses in a light blue nun’s habit, kind of looks like Jessica Lange from American Horror Stories, who tries to scam donations in the area.
  • The coffee in Gastown is much better than Yaletown

During the first 14 months, I got my morning Americano from Bean Around the World after deciding it was the best option for me via a Food Rumble.  However in the last 6 months I’ve become a regular at Timbertrain.

I was simply won over by the friendly staff, the customer focused details at the cafe, and most importantly, their better coffee.

I immediately noticed that the espresso shots pulled from Timbertrain’s own roasted beans were much lighter tasting but complex at the same time.  It was not dark or bitter tasting like my previous Americano.  Instead I detected a sweetness and a brightness in their brew.  As a result, I have been able to significantly reduce the amount of sugar and cream I need for my Americano.

One of the customer focused detail I adore at Timbertrain is they offer, for free, both still and sparkling water on tap.  I’ve never seen sparkling water on tap available for patrons to partake at any other café in town.  I also love the fact they do have fun with the signage for it. 

Timbertrain offers a modest selection of outsourced pastries and confections and I think they hit a home run with their partnership with Float On Bakeshop on Fraser.  I love the Comfort Cookie baked at Float On and sold at Timbertrain.  It is the oddest ensemble of ingredients but so enjoyable and smile inducing. 

The cookie contains pretzels, ridged potato chips and chocolate.  The salty ingredients, the pretzel and chips, added texture and their saltine nature boosted the sweetness and flavours within this sweet treat.

The next on my list to try at Timbertrain is the very trendy Cold Brew which they have near their front counter/cashier area.  I didn’t realize they offered it until recently and by then the weather had turned; a hot Americano is much more comforting currently.  

In short, Timbertrain is a modest sized coffee shop but is big on charm and quality coffee.  It’s a great place to relax in Gastown.

Timbertrain Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon